In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
After escaping Egypt, the Israelites, led by God, are pursued by the Egyptians and find themselves trapped between a rock (the Egyptians) and a hard place (the Red Sea). In yet another display of awesome power and His redemptive purposes, God divides the waters of the sea so the Israelites can safely pass through, while also destroying the Egyptians by means of that same sea.
Obviously, this is yet another display of God’s wondrous power. In the narrative of the plagues, we see that God is victorious over Egypt, over Pharaoh, and over the gods of Egypt. Our passage today underscores this point – God completely destroys the enemies of Israel. The reason why this is so important, I think, can be understood in the light of how the Israelites react to their predicament.
To clarify what I mean, after escaping Egypt, after witnessing the power of God in the ten plagues, when the Israelites find themselves pursued by the Egyptians, this is their response:
10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
It’s worth noting that, in this part of the book of Exodus, this is a theme that we’re going to encounter again and again: “It would have been better to stay in Egypt.” In some sense, this is a completely understandable reaction. Faced with the imminent prospect of death (though it is probable that the Egyptians wanted to return the bulk of the Israelites to Egypt – at least, we can appreciate that the Israelites were facing a huge army), in what seemed to be an inescapable situation, we can understand how the Israelites would have thought it better to have stayed in Egypt.
Have you ever used the phrase (or a cognate), “back in the good old days”? We tend to think about “the good old days” when we’re not particularly happy with our present day, or some aspect of our present day. But memory is a strange thing. We trust in and rely on our memory to, for example, make decisions and to generally make sense of our lives. But our memories are actually notoriously unreliable. Science (which is to say that some scientific studies) have shown that memory is not a static thing but that it’s constantly being re-constructed. An example of this is how mothers (this is just what I’ve heard, not having any first-hand experience of it) actually forget the pain of child-birth – at least they forget to some extent. Arguably, this is so women are actually willing to have more children.
So it’s easy to see, even in a short time frame, how the Israelites, faced with immanent doom, might forget how terrible their enslavement in Egypt was. All they remember is that, if they had stayed in Egypt, everything would have been better than this horrible situation now. The Israelites, in the light of their current difficulty, forgot that the old life that they used to live, in Egypt, was not actually life at all. They forgot the wonders of God which delivered them from that not-life. They forgot that they were rescued by a sovereign God who desired to make a kingdom-people. To be fair, they probably didn’t understand what this meant. They didn’t understand what it would mean to be a kingdom-people, what it would mean to be a people of God.
As we’ve argued, in the context of what’s going on in the Old Testament story so far, this making of a kingdom people is a primary theme in the story. It is the central movement in God’s purpose to restore creation – a world fallen in sin. The point is that, in rescuing Israel from Egypt, God is creating a new people, a kingdom-people. And in order to do that, to become that, they have to actually leave Egypt. They have to leave behind their old assumptions about what constitutes life. They have to leave behind slavery in order to take hold of kingdom-life.
So What Now…?
We also have to do the same thing. In becoming kingdom-people, in becoming the people of God, we have to leave behind all that is not-kingdom. Sometimes, we really don’t want to do that. Sometimes we would really rather have the not-kingdom – possibly because it’s more familiar, because it’s more comfortable, because it’s easier, or whatever other reason.
This is a key aspect of what it means to be a church. We are trying to understand, to live out, and to help each other live out what it means to be a kingdom-people. In order to do that, we need to leave behind everything that is not kingdom-living. We have to leave behind all of those things that try to define us as a community that don’t actually come from God.
As the story of the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea might suggest, this is actually pretty hard. We’re drawn to what we think is the “good old days” because they’re familiar, or comfortable, or simply because it’s what everyone else is doing. To take hold of the kingdom-life to which we’re called and for which we’re saved, we have to radically re-orient our reality. Or rather, we have to allow God, the Holy Spirit, radically re-orient our reality.
So, a few thoughts about what this might mean.
Firstly, in my thinking, this is largely a Christ and Culture question. Without getting too deeply into this, and therefore too far away from our actual considerations today, the question of Christ and Culture is one that has preoccupied theologians, churches, and Christians for many years. H. Richard Niebuhr looked at this question in his book, Christ and Culture, back in the 1950’s and sort of set the table for the discussion in all subsequent years. Essentially, how does the Church, how do God’s people, engage in and with the world around us?
But the question is further complicated by the fact that every church, and every expression and appropriation of the gospel, exists in, and is therefore influenced by the times and locations in which it finds itself. Furthermore, that’s not entirely or necessarily a bad thing. What I mean by that, at least in part, is that not every expression of culture is a bad thing. Inasmuch as all people are made in the image of God, and inasmuch as all of creation is made by the hand of God, even in our fallen state, we are capable of expressing echoes of God.
A simple example of this is the current Western democratic preoccupation with individual, human rights. In my opinion, this movement towards human rights is a good thing. Every person, regardless of race, religion, creed, and yes, sexual orientation, deserves to be treated with respect, kindness, and basic human decency.
But, at the same time, all human culture is corrupted by sin – because all human beings are corrupted by sin. Therefore, we have to beware of just how things are corrupted. Or, in other words, we have to pay attention how things are governed by worldly influences rather than by kingdom concerns.
Therefore, while we are trying to leave behind the kingdoms of the world and live in the kingdom of God, in our era of already-not-yet, it’s not as simple as leaving Egypt behind. What we see in the Exodus story, and the subsequent story of Israel, is that there is a constant struggle between living as called by God and living in (and as part of) the world.
An interesting way to think about this is, what is central to, crucial for, the Christian life? The God life? The Kingdom life? What, if we were to eliminate or exclude it, would make it, not the kingdom-life, but something else? There’s a quote by Henry David Thoreau in his book, Walden; Or Life in the Woods, made famous by its use in Dead Poets Society, which says:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
I have no idea if Thoreau was a Christian, but he’s on to something here. My concern is that, as Christians, and as churches, we spend an awful lot of time and energy worrying about, thinking about, and judging one another for, things that have nothing to do with life – or more specifically, that have nothing to do with kingdom-life.
Where do we get these ideas from? Well, what I’m suggesting is that, sometimes (maybe even oftentimes) we have allowed cultural, worldly, not-life and not-kingdom-life ideas and influences to penetrate and work its way into our understanding of what’s essential to life. The simple thing that I’m asking us to consider is whether the concerns we have are, in fact, the concerns of God. Are they concerns of the world, or are they concerns of the kingdom? And if they’re not, where do they come from?
We could go on and on in regards to these questions, but what I want to say is that at the end of the day, our foundation, our beginning and end, must be the Word of God – scripture. It is the Word of God, communicated by and formed in us by the Holy Spirit, that is the final word on all things. It’s for this reason that, as a community, a church of God, that we try to take seriously what the bible says. We try to take seriously our responsibility (and invitation) to dig deeply into scripture and understand well what it says.
Now, in some ways, this is a double-edged sword because most Christian communities throughout the ages have claimed to be bible-believing, bible-led. The supporters of slavery in the United States claimed to do so on the basis of a correct interpretation of scripture. So did supporters of apartheid in South Africa. So did the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews.
For this reason, we approach our study of scripture and our interpretation and application of theology with humility. We have to constantly examine ourselves, being led and admonished by the Holy Spirit, and ask whether we are holding on to something which we would do better to let go. Are we constantly longing for “the good old days” rather than being led into an unknown wilderness of kingdom life?
The point that I am trying to make is, I hope, quite simple. God has called us into a new life. In order to truly live that new life, we need to leave the old life behind. But in order to leave the new live behind, we need to examine ourselves to see how the old life has penetrated, worked itself into our consciousness. We need to allow the Spirit of God, through the word of God, to reveal these things to us, to change our hearts and our minds, and to lead us into the new life of the kingdom. To lead us into the promised land.